For better or for worse, automation is going to have an affect on specific jobs in Houston. Getty Images

A new report from UpSkill Houston, a workforce initiative of the Greater Houston Partnership, puts the implications of workplace automation into stark focus. According to the report, more than 50 percent of middle-skill jobs in the Houston area face a higher-than-average risk of being upset by automation.

Peter Beard, who leads UpSkill Houston and is senior vice president for workforce development at the Greater Houston Partnership, says this means technology will "get embedded even more in the workplace than it's ever been before. … People's jobs will change because they have to work alongside technology. And there will be some jobs that get displaced because of that technology."

"Robots are coming," he adds, "but they're not going to replace us. We're going to have to figure out how to work beside them."

Middle-skill jobs require less than a four-year bachelor's degree but more than a high school diploma. In other words, jobs fitting into this middle ground might demand a two-year associate's degree or a training certificate from a technical school.

The report, released July 16, points out that middle-skill occupations in manufacturing and construction, for instance, face a high risk of disruption as companies adopt technologies that automate tasks, such as prefabrication of building materials. By contrast, the report notes, automation places jobs in the health care and service sectors in far less jeopardy because they generally rely on tasks that can't easily be automated. For example, jobs in health care often require social skills that can't be replicated through automation, which includes artificial intelligence, robotics, and machine learning.

However, jobs in health care aren't entirely immune from shifts in the workplace. The report indicates jobs in workforce segments like health care, sales and office support, IT, management, and drafting now require a medium or high level of digital skills.

That being said, all workers — regardless of their industry, occupation, or education — must embrace solid digital skills in order to succeed in the workforce, the report states. Beard says that to compete in today's workforce, a high school graduate must be proficient in Microsoft's Word, Excel, and PowerPoint programs as well as in a customer relationship management platform like Salesforce.

The findings in the UpSkill Houston report come at a pivotal time for the Houston economy, given the job-slashing double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and the oil slump. The pandemic "has accelerated and accentuated a fundamental change that has been underway — a change in the education and skills needed to be successful in the workforce today and into the future," the report states.

That change poses particular challenges for low-skill and middle-skill workers in the Houston area, according to the report. The report recommends that workforce development stakeholders, including employers, schools, and community organizations, build a regional "framework" aimed at ramping up skillsets so workers can seize increasingly elevated career opportunities.

"It all starts with the employer. The employer is in the best position to know what skills they need today and what skills they are likely to need tomorrow," Beard says. "Fundamentally, we're trying to create a supply chain of talent that meets the needs of our economy and the needs of our employers."

But that takes employers collaborating with schools to ensure those skills are being taught, he says, and employers and schools motivating students to consider jobs that incorporate those skills.

Beard assigns those skills to four categories:

  • Technical skills
  • Digital skills
  • Soft skills, such as communication
  • Problem-solving skills

"This whole push we've had that everyone should go to college and get a four-year degree has made folks consider jobs that don't require a four-year college degree to be menial," Beard says. "That same mentality has also permeated the employers. How many job descriptions have we seen that put a four-year degree requirement on them but that don't require four years of college education?"

We're living in the age of machine learning and artificial intelligence. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Now is the time to expand machine learning, says Houston researcher

Houston voices

One might not expect the game of checkers to have anything to do with artificial intelligence, but the game really marked the beginning of machine learning in 1959. Pioneered by an MIT professor named Arthur Lee Samuel, it was discovered that teaching a simple strategy game to a computer is not so simple when every move needs to be anticipated.

Smart machines Additionally, in a Forbes article about the difference between artificial intelligence and machine learning, Bernard Marr comments, "Artificial Intelligence is the broader concept of machines being able to carry out tasks in a way that we would consider 'smart'. And, machine learning is a current application of AI based around the idea that we should really just be able to give machines access to data and let them learn for themselves."

That's the premise of many a movie involving computers which become sentient, but is it really science fiction anymore?

Meet the new boss

Teaching a computer to think like a human is advantageous and includes the added bonus of increased speed. Computers aren't biased, either — which is why huge corporations, such as Unilever, use computers to thin out their first wave of applicants. You actually interview with a bot when you begin the employment process there.

Cause and effect AI and ML are often used in cybersecurity efforts — at least one would suppose. But in Security magazine, Jordan Mauriello writes: "AI/ML cannot do causation." That means artificial intelligence cannot, at this point in time, tell you why something happened. The why? is best left to experts who deal with game theory and other ways of determining how to defend against hypothetical attacks.

Get in on the ground floor

The field is growing and students at colleges across the country are beginning to train for careers in it in droves.

"America's top colleges are ramping up their research efforts and developing concentrations for their computer science degree programs to accommodate this high-tech field," writes Great Value Colleges on their blog. It looks as though this discipline is on an upward trajectory and shows no sign of slowing down.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Sarah Hill, the author of this piece, is the communications manager for the UH Division of Research.

AvidXchange executives explain why a crisis like the pandemic can provide opportunities for growth or realignment. Photo via Getty Images

Overheard: Fintech company with Houston ties sees opportunity for growth in new work-from-home age

Eavesdropping in Houston

From esports to telemedicine, some technologies are having a major moment during the COVID-19 crisis. As many businesses are operating remotely with work-from-home policies in place indefinitely, payments automation is another technology that's seen an opportunity amid the pandemic.

AvidXchange, which has invoice and payment processes automation software for mid-market businesses, is one of the companies in this payment automation space that's seen growth in spite of the economic downturn caused by the virus. The Charlotte, North Carolina-based company was founded in 2000 and went on to acquire Houston-founded Strongroom Solutions Inc. in 2015.

Since the acquisition, AvidXchange has quadrupled its presence in Houston and does a good deal of business locally. Equipping companies with tools for remote work is crucial — now and especially in light of Houston's propensity for challenges. Tyler Gill, vice president of sales for AvidXchange based in the Houston office and former CEO of Strongroom, joined Houston Exponential on a virtual panel to discuss this topic.

"We've had a history of disasters in Houston. Any time we can help businesses move to a more cloud-based infrastructure is going to be better," Gill says on the livestream. "I think working from home is maybe the new normal for a lot of employees — so how do we enable this?"

Gill and his colleague, Chris Elmore, senior sales performance director at AvidXchange, joined Joey Sanchez of HX for the talk about the acquisition, the pandemic, and growth for the company. If you missed it or don't have time to stream the whole conversation, here are some impactful moments of the chat.

“Economic downturns have a tendency to put a very bright light on a feature set or a product or a service that’s underperforming."

— Elmore says on how the pandemic affects innovation and startups. "My hope is that entrepreneurs will see this as a real time to get focused on their business — what's working well and what's not working well — and my hope is that they'll say, 'I need to fix that,' not 'I wish this was better,'" he says.

“For a young entrepreneur looking to build a business, make sure you’re looking for the people who are germane to your business.”

— Gill says about starting his business in Houston. At first, he was trying to find investors in oil and gas, but he found more success working with companies with a background in finance technology. "Houston has a history and density in fintech — I just had to find it."

“The fact that Strongroom owned the automated payment process in HOA that made them so attractive to AvidXchange because we didn’t.”

— Elmore says on the 2015 acquisition. He explains that AvidXchange had set up a presence in multifamily and commercial real estate, while Strongroom had a hold on homeowner's association, or HOA, business. The two companies competed for a while, and if Strongroom hadn't had their HOA specialty that made the company ideal for acquisition, Elmore says the two companies would still be competing today.

“When Strongroom was added to AvidXchange, our culture improved. By the way, we went from 40 employees to 1,000 within 14 months, and Strongroom was right at the beginning of that.”

— Elmore says on growth following the acquisition. The company now has 1,500 employees across seven offices and just closed a $128 million round of fundraising in April.

“Customers don’t care how big you get or how much money you raise from investors. They care about if your service is still doing the things they need to operate their business.”

— Gill says, reminding entrepreneurs to always prioritize and be focused on the client experience — through mergers or acquisitions, fundraising rounds, growth, etc.

“When you replace human interaction with technology, what you have to do, is to now move that person on to something more impactful and more important for the business. I don’t like tech for tech’s sake.”

— Elmore says on the importance of automation. "When you automate something, the output of automation is time," he adds.

“Houston couldn’t be a better place to build a business — I found great investors and employees here. It’s a city that’s used to risk. But it’s got to be you, the entrepreneur, that’s got something festering — that’s how you know it’s a great idea.”

— Gill says on inspiring future innovators. "What kept me motivated was I wanted to win. I felt like we had a great product, and we had a big market to serve. … I wanted to build something lasting and build a great team."

“We continue to be a great Houston story — some of my angel investors in Houston are still benefiting."

— Gill says on AvidXchange's presence in Houston. He adds that he's proud of how his former Strongroom team members have risen through the ranks of the company following the acquisition and that he sees the company, which is still privately held, moving toward IPO.

Houston's DataCon can help prepare business leaders for the digital revolution in AI and machine learning. Getty Images

Houston companies need to get ready for an artificial intelligence and machine learning revolution

The future is now

Looming on the horizon is a data tsunami coming towards us at breakneck speed. Companies have worked hard to keep up, creating digital transformation, taking manual processes from desktops, clipboards, and the paper paradigm to the Cloud. We're now sitting on huge quantities of idle bits of information called dark data. It's over collected and unused data that has the potential power to create decision-making brilliance.

Business leaders are attempting to optimize siloed data – unrelated data collected in databases and spreadsheets or obsolete apps, to make critical decisions. We currently connect these siloes with other systems using a data processing step called ETL – Extract, Transform and Load. Take the data from one place, transform it so it can relate to another data resource and then load that data to another place for analysis. It's a big, time consuming, intermediary step we have figured out how to circumvent. "NoETL" technology is the next-generation magic wand of machine thinking and it's a game-changer.

As non-technical business leaders, we rely on our partners in IT to give us meaningful data that charts our course. They've been our faithful navigators. We've made the recommended investment in IT infrastructure and technology and counted on receiving analytics that will result in winning outcomes. It's now time to sit down at the table and have new conversations with IT leadership around AI.

A tectonic shift

We are now in a new place. AI has come upon us quickly and the promise of ROI is great. There are new technologies that give business leaders advantages never before realized. Data science is the new crystal ball to the future of business. Automation and machine learning are taking historical data to a look ahead using algorithms and mathematical modeling. It's a new predictive mindset. What business leader wouldn't want that crystal ball?

The real assets of your business exist not in better machines but in your current data stores which are like coal mines waiting for data science to turn those lumps of coal into data diamonds.

There are new vocabulary words associated with data analytics. Data science thought leaders are preparing the way for businesses to have learning opportunities and to know which resources to tap for direction in creating new competitive dynamics. Don't wait too long to be curious. The early adopters are already a step ahead and the competitive marketplace is changing in unexpected ways.

Leadership resources for the implementation of AI

Legacy businesses with data lakes are ripe for action. Who should lead the charge? It's up to the C-suite to have intentional conversations around data science. It's up to leadership to be ready to speak and understand new concepts and vocabulary combined with leaps of faith needed to join the new world order of information.

Learning resources 

Proactively look for learning opportunities. There are no excuses for not taking the initiative. No matter where you are in your career – this isn't something to linger about.

One upcoming seminar around AI and automation collaboration and education is DataCon Houston. It's an annual conference that brings important concepts around AI and Automation to business leaders. The target audience is not IT professionals, although there will be some in attendance; it's meant primarily to help the C-suite and non-technical leaders know where to begin and where to find that new vocabulary and translative resources. AI will affect every person in every business, and we must be ready for the cultural shifts that will come with the technological shifts.

Authors and thought leaders — George Danner, Dave McComb, and Gerald Kane will be speaking at DataCon October 10, 2019. In addition, Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs will be speaking about XR and data visualization and its use in training employees and creating safer workplaces. Stefanos Damianakis will be teaching machine learning 101 and Juan Sequeda, principal scientist of data.world will present his UltraWrap NoETL patented technology.

Solving the unsolvable

The future of decision-making will render in blinks of an eye. Problems we thought unsolvable will suddenly have answers. Business leaders must get behind the leap of faith required for our own companies and push learning and understanding forward across the organization at all levels. AI and machine learning are the vortex of change. Are you ready for AI?

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Suzette Cotto is CEO of Innovate Social Media, a digital marketing agency specializing marketing for startups in the medical, technology, and energy industries. For more information on DataCon Houston 2019, please visit: https://incitelogix.com/datacon-houston-2019/

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New Houston hub calls for collaboration for flood and hurricane prevention innovation

Houston innovators podcast episode 43

When it comes to insurance, most people's interaction is pretty limited buying a plan, filing claims when need be, and paying the monthly bill. However, unbeknownst to most of their insured clients, insurance companies are investing in insuratech and new innovations within the natural disaster space.

Richard Seline, managing director of ResilientH20, along with the Insurance Information Institute and The Cannon, to launch the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub to foster this type of technology and bring insuratech startups and the big insurance players to the table — something that's not often done.

"It's two different languages," Seline says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "There's a whole language and a whole mindset within the insurance industry that is not real well known."

The hub, which is based in downtown Houston's Cannon Tower, has been hard at work hosting virtual pitch events and networking opportunities since it launched in June just as the 2020 hurricane season commenced. Seline explains the mission is threefold: allow for reverse pitching where insurance companies tell innovators what their challenges are in hopes of inspiring new technology, introducing insuratech companies to potential investors or clients, and fostering innovation for new natural disaster prevention innovations.

On the podcast, Seline discusses new endeavors he's working on within his organization and explains the role his feels the new hub has in Houston's innovation ecosystem. To him, the city must work collaboratively to move the needle on growth of its innovation ecosystem.

"The good news is there is a lot of great activity underway in Houston right now — no questions asked," Seline says. "What we are doing can be seen as complimentary and not competitive with anyone else."

From game-changing startups to watch out for to upcoming events and partnerships for the Gulf Coast & Southwest Resilience Innovation Hub, check out the podcast. You can listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.



Houston tech companies have raised over $466M so far this year, new report finds

money moves

This year might be a wash for a lot of things, but according to a new fundraising report from Houston Exponential, the Bayou City has seen an increase in funding this year compared to 2019.

The HTX Funding Review found that Houston startups raised $466.33 million across 46 deals between January and July — compared to $437 in the same time frame last year. While the increase seems marginal, it's important to consider the effect of the pandemic and the few months of troubles for the oil and gas industry.

The 7 percent increase in funding is impressive compared to the national average of 2.5 percent, according to the report, which was organized by Serafina Lalany, HX chief of staff. Eighteen later stage deals made up for 76 percent of the total money raised, indicating key growth for the ecosystem.

"This expansion in Houston's relatively new and booming tech innovation ecosystem shows a strength and resilience that is really exciting," says Harvin Moore, president of HX, in the report. "We are seeing a maturation of our very young ecosystem, as rapidly growing tech companies increasingly access later stage venture capital, which often comes from outside the local area."

The report calls out 11 deals — ranging from angel to late stage — that have occured in Houston to date in 2020:

  • Preventice Solutions, a medical device company, raised a $137 million series B led by Palo Alto-based Vivo Capital along with support from existing investors, including Merck Global Health Innovation Fund, Boston Scientific, and the Samsung Catalyst Fund.
  • Fintech and software-as-a-service company HighRadius raised a $125 million series B led by ICONIQ Capital, with participation from existing investors Susquehanna Growth Equity and Citi Ventures.
  • Liongard, a SaaS company, raised a $17 million series B led by TDF Ventures, Integr8d Capital, and private investors.
  • Base Hologram, a provider of hologram concert experience, raised $15.4 million in an outsized angel round this past May.
  • ThoughtTrace, another SaaS company, raised $10 million in a series B led by McRock Capital and existing investors, as well as Chevron Technology Ventures.
  • Renewable energy company Quidnet also raised a $10 million series B. Bill Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Canada-based Evok Innovations, which both previously invested in the company, contributed to the round.
  • SmartAC.com emerged from stealth mode with a $10 million series A fundraising announcement.
  • Retina AI, an AI company focused on diagnostics for diseases such as diabetic retinopathy from pictures of the retina, raised $4.1 million in an angel round which closed mid-July.
  • E-commerce platform Goodfair raised $3.67 million from but the round was led by Imaginary, with support from MaC Venture Capital, Global Founders Capital, Willow Ventures, Watertower, Amplify.LA, Capital Factory, and Texas Ventures.
  • SecurityGate, a cybersecurity platform, raised funds from Houston Ventures in June, but wouldn't disclose how much.
  • Oil and gas software company, M1neral, raised $1.6 million pre-seed co-led by Amnis Ventures and Pheasant Energy, among a few other select investors and strategic partners.

While the pandemic has made funding and vetting new portfolio companies, Blair Garrou, managing director of Houston-based Mercury Fund, says venture capital firms are committed to backing the strongest startups already in their portfolio.

"We've seen many VCs focus on a 'flight to quality,'" Garrou says. "Specifically, VCs are focused more on making sure their best performing portfolio companies have cash, especially at the later stages, as well as investing in the later rounds of new deals that are clear over-performers during COVID."

Looking forward, the HX report predicts that fundraising growth will continue throughout the rest of the year.

"There are several very large local deals in final term sheet stage, and we expect full year 2020 to be the highest ever for venture capital in Houston; our ecosystem is really thriving," says Moore in the report.

Houston investor: Is this the golden age for B2B software?

Guest column

B2B software as a service, or SaaS, founders entered 2020 riding a wave of the longest economic expansion in United States history. Valuations increased to new highs, funding rounds continued getting larger at each stage, and forecasts went up and to the right fast. But then, March hit.

Quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, headlines became dominated by apocalyptic predictions of death, record levels of unemployment, shocking economic forecasts of GDP contraction, historic mass layoffs and furloughs, and unprecedented multi-trillion dollar economic stimulus packages. For founders every instinct began screaming to cut costs and hunker down.

But should B2B SaaS founders cut their organizations right now? Through analyzing a few key events and looking to the evidence in the market today, founders can develop a strategy for growing during this crisis. Not only is growth cheaper for most B2B SaaS against the backdrop of economic meltdown, but with the majority following a hunker-down instinct, a growing B2B SaaS firm will compare very favorably against a landscape of stale and stagnant competitors.

Reviewing the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic and the 2008 downturn

While the health implications vary widely between the current pandemic and the 1918 flu epidemic, the economic reactions share many similarities. The US response to 1918 was just as fractured as the states' reactions to COVID have been this year. As cities and states in 1918 shut down commerce to stem the spread of the flu, economic contraction quickly gave way to rebound, the so called "V-shaped recovery," despite the Spanish Flu having much higher death rates among working individuals than COVID-19.

There are major differences between 1918 and 2020, however. First, there is untapped potential in technology to replace workers. As businesses look for ways to cut costs, expect them to aggressively turn to automation, ultimately depressing real wages. Second, the 1918 response did not include shutdown measures as draconian as those we are experiencing in 2020. This could lead to permanent output loss across a wide range of industries, increasing real prices just as real wages decline. And third, the trillions of dollars in federal economic relief are unlike anything attempted in 1918.

The 2008 downturn that nearly brought the financial sector to a halt rippled through the economy as businesses in a wide range of industries made steep cuts to operations and capital expenditures. Despite this dangerous environment, SaaS firms increased profitability and continued to grow revenues each quarter. Growth slowed but remained positive while most other companies experienced absolute declines in revenue.

Customer acquisition for SaaS businesses usually gets more efficient during downturns, driving the potential for faster growth. The performance of all publicly traded B2B SaaS firms during 2008 illustrated in Figure 1 above proves the resilience of this category during a recession. While revenue continued to grow, profitability rose from a 10 percent loss on average to a 5 percent gain on average by 2010. This is likely due to firms freezing salaries and hiring and perhaps cutting down the sales and marketing budgets.

Downturn case study: Salesforce

Salesforce entered the downturn as a category leader in B2B SaaS with nearly $500M in revenue in 2007 and $3.5 million in operating losses. Throughout 2008, the company grew revenues by 51 percent to $748 million and operating profit surged to $20.3 million. And in 2009, the company repeated this stellar performance by growing revenues 44 percent to $1,077M and operating profit to $63 million. These results occurred against the backdrop of a global financial downturn and with a product focused on helping people sell more effectively (not something one would expect would sell well during a free-fall recession).

The revenue growth throughout those years followed the growth in sales and marketing spend. In 2008, the company grew sales and marketing by 49 percent, driving 51 percent revenue growth at about $1.50 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue added. In 2009, the company grew sales and marketing 42 percent resulting in 44 percent revenue growth at $1.63 of sales expense per $1 of recognized revenue. By 2010, the sales growth advantage was gone and Salesforce not only dropped its expense growth rate but also reverted to spending $2.64 per $1 of new revenue added.


Looking at these results Salesforce executed on the growth opportunities in 2008 and 2009 by ramping up sales expenses. The relative cost to acquire customers in 2008 and 2009 compared to 2010 proved significantly cheaper (approximately 40 percent less expensive). When faced with an advantage like that, every founder should charge ahead.

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Andrew Smith is vice president of Houston-based Golden Section Venture Capital.